RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — For more than 30 years, anthropologist Sharif Kanaana has been collecting and studying Palestinian folk tales so that people at home and abroad would understand the story of his people.
This week, the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority (PA) added a new chapter: a directive to pull Professor Kanaana's book from school libraries and destroy it.
"I don't want to generalize about all of Hamas – I rather hope it's a unique case, a mistake by an individual," says Kanaana, a scholarly, bespectacled academic who was just heading into semiretirement when he inadvertently became the poster child of the Palestinian divide between liberals and ultra-conservatives. "Unfortunately, it confirmed some of the worst expectations people had for this government."
The decision underscores the struggle for ideological and political hegemony, one that is making itself felt more strongly than ever before.
While literature lovers and others on the more progressive side of Palestinian society see the order to ban the book as an attack on the cultural freedoms, the Islamist Hamas movement and its supporters see the move as a democratically endorsed step toward protecting students from "harmful" influences and "offensive" language, in the words of one leading official here.
"The book was withdrawn because of the problems with offensive language which contradicts our beliefs and morals," says Sheikh Yazid Khader, who is the director-general of the PA's Ministry of Education.
Religious conservatives say that they didn't like five stories within the 400-page book of folklore, which includes academic explanations and theory, because of references to body parts or human excretion.
The decision to pull the book "Speak Bird, Speak Again," first published in English in 1989 and later in Arabic in Lebanon, was issued by the education ministry last month in a letter to teachers, who were instructed to destroy it.
"Our society depends on Islamic values and has for hundreds of years," continues Sheikh Khader. "Our most important objective is to make curriculum adhere to our social values."
In his viewpoint, too many Western influences are seeping into Palestinian society, and children must be better shielded from them.
"This new generation is unable to distinguish between what is harmful and what is beneficial, so we have to protect them from these harmful influences," he says. "The Israeli occupation is interested in introducing us to Western values that work to destroy our Arab and Muslim values."
The fresh wave of negative press for Hamas, domestically and internationally, comes at a particularly uncomfortable time for the organization, whose name is an acronym that stands for the Islamic Resistance Movement.
Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream and secular political faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), are moving closer to reaching an agreement that would pave the way for the creation of a national unity government.
The two sides have been wrangling after what was hoped to be a breakthrough powersharing deal reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last month. Banning of the book, written by Kanaana and coauthor Ibrahim Muhawi, adds to concerns of many Palestinians that Hamas has not moderated on core issues, be it reconciliation with Israel or making Palestinian society more Islamic.
Many notable Palestinians have condemned pulling the book from schools. Yahya Yakhlef, who was the PA's minister of culture until a year ago, when Hamas formed its cabinet after its landslide election victory in January 2006, says he was shocked.
"We consider this an act of ignorance," says Mr. Yakhlef. "What we are worried about is that the trends become a normal pattern in our life, and we'll get to the point where we'll be like a Taliban culture. We will not allow medieval values to dominate."
Still, many Palestinians say that, thus far, having Hamas leadership has been felt as a political issue, even perhaps in the form of a worsening economy and lack of security – but not as a sign of cultural oppression.
One of the incidents people here cite happened two years ago, when the Hamas-run municipality in the West Bank city of Qalqilya banned a cultural festival that would have including the debke, a Palestinian folk dance that includes men and women holding hands.
"We can say now that Hamas is being revealed to the Palestinian people," says Yakhlef. "I think the popularity of Hamas has dropped."
It's not the first time the PA has banned a book. In the 1990s, the works of intellectual Edward Said were banned because of his criticism of the PLO and the Oslo Peace Accords. Israel once used to censor Palestinian newspapers and periodicals. But this is the first time that a book is being taken off the shelves for something other than its political content. "Speak Bird, Speak Again," is still being used in colleges and can be purchased in stores.
All of this surprised Kanaana, who wrote the book with an audience of graduate and PhD students in mind. The book was later added to school libraries – usually just one per school – so that teachers could access it and choose an appropriate story or two to share with children or teenagers.
"Any folk tales of any people in the world will have an obscene term or two. I recorded these stories in colloquial Arabic in the exact words people use, because otherwise, there's no point," says Kanaana who sat calmly drinking his afternoon coffee. At the insistence of his wife, he has turned off the phone for a break from nonstop calls.
"All that attention is not over me," he says. "It's toward Hamas and the political struggle."